Training Intensity & Arousal Part 2 - Misconceptions and Mishaps

The way we approach training from a mental standpoint is imperative. Any pursuit requires a level of attention and arousal. Optimal arousal and the level of attention that we direct towards our training, may be the difference between making or failing a lift; poor technical execution, or precision; a good training session, or a subpar training session. However, I feel that the general perception of what it is to increase arousal is slightly misunderstood.

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The ‘Inverted-U Theory’ is something that many of those in sports performance and/or strength and conditioning should be very familiar with. To sum it up, if your head’s not in it, you’ll probably underperform. If you’re having to summon the demons prior to most sets you could potentially see a decrease in performance, due to being over aroused. This will lead to a couple of things.

First, the energy expended in your pre-lift pump-up is probably better used for your set. Second, unless your technique is that of an experienced intermediate or advanced lifter, it could impact your execution, and in strength training and powerlifting, technique is king. Repetition of movements with perfect execution is what will allow you to develop strength, gain muscle and ensure that you can progress in your lifting career, whilst reducing the risk of injury. More reps and sets are failed because of poor technical execution, not because the strength wasn’t there. 

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t get amped pre-lift, just choose your battles wisely. A top single, an AMRAP (as many reps as possible), or third attempt deadlift may be a necessary time to summon the demons, permitting your technique is up to scratch. A sub-maximal working set at week 2 of your training block, maybe not. The vast majority of training time is spent attempting to drive technical mastery of lifts and to build muscle. Both of these require technique and time. Going hard all the time means your risk of injury increases, less focus is on technical execution and more focus is on pure grunt. These all detract from attention being directed towards the movement skill. 

Now you’re probably thinking, how is this Part II to a blog that spoke about promoting intensity, increased arousal and as a result, improved performance (PART 1 - HERE). By definition, arousal is a state of heightened emotional activity. By definition, we can see that arousal mediates levels of attention. From this, we can see that increased attention is an increase in arousal. Being more attentive to what we are trying to achieve and how we’re trying to achieve it, is a way of increasing arousal. Changing the way we think about increasing motivation prior to a lift or a set, may very well get us to a point of moderate arousal, without getting too deep into the inverted ‘U’. 

What I’m proposing, is that you practice being more focused during your training sessions. Remind yourself why you’re doing the exercise. What you want to feel during your set. Unless you’re able to perform the exercise flawlessly without thought, your thoughts are better directed towards what you want to achieve during the lift. This is rather than attempting to kill the barbell. Redirecting your attention and redefining your purpose will work to get you to the point of ‘optimal arousal’.

The Transition from Arousal to Flow

Have you ever noticed, that in your best sporting performances, your best lifts, things almost happen effortlessly? Yes, you’re focused, and the challenge of opposition or heavy load is definitely present. However, things just happen. Most may refer to this as ‘being in the zone’, or as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (MC), the Hungarian psychologist has named it, ‘flow’. MC has defined flow as the state in which people “are completely absorbed in an activity, especially an activity which involves their creative abilities. During this ‘optimal experience’ they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”

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The above chart illustrates where MC believes we need to be to achieve a flow state. This channel is where skill level, and the challenge faced is roughly equal. Getting into this flow channel is what we want to achieve. This is why majority of this blog has pushed attention towards technical execution and the purpose of movement, rather than anything else. So that we can get to a point of high skill and confidence in ability, so when the challenge is high, a state of flow can be achieved.

Think about any other sport that requires maximal intent and technical prowess. Before a 100m sprint, do you see Usain Bolt getting slapped by his coach? Before a fight, do you see Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao growling and screaming? I remember when I was competing during my combat sports career, every time I fought angry I had the shit kicked out of me. It was when I started practicing mindfulness and Yoga before sparring sessions, things started to click. Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get pumped up before a lift, or competition. Just the way that you do it. 

Redefine what you think is optimal arousal. Technical execution, confidence and a level head are going to drive you to succeed under the bar and in competition. Allow these to take priority the next time you train and hopefully with practice, you can find yourself nailing lifts like never before.

About the Author - Jamie Bouziotis
Head of Strength and Conditioning at Melbourne Strength Culture
YouTube: Melbourne Strength Culture